Happy today

The truth of the matter is, I’ve been feeling a lot like my sister, the one on the right in this photo, the last few weeks.

There is one glaring reason for my sadness- my beloved tabby cat passed away a few weeks ago and left a void that has yet to be filled. And another obvious one- I haven’t slept through the night in over a year. But there is another underlying issue at the heart of it: While everyone else is parading around pumpkin patches and cooking up squash, I just don’t get all that excited about fall. Yes, the leaves are beautiful and I get to wear my favorite Lebowski-esque cardigan sweater again, but I miss summer. I miss the crickets and I miss the long, warm days. I miss Bob Uecker on the radio and I miss swimming in lakes. I miss my tomatoes that never ripened and I hate spaghetti squash. There. I said it.

Now, I realize that it doesn’t behoove you to write off an entire season, especially when you live in a climate like ours; it’s a considerable chunk of your life here in the upper midwest. In an effort to embrace the season, I’m channeling my two-year-old self: The one, who upon discovering that on Halloween all you have to do is knock on a door and someone will hand you candy, danced up and down her street yelling “Happy today, happy today, happy today!”

So I’m going to carve a pumpkin and whip up some molasses bars. I’ll cheer on the Pack and dig out my ski socks. I’ll daydream; maybe this will be the winter I’ll practice the banjo and learn to crochet. And I’m making stew because when it comes to soup, summer ain’t got nothing on fall. When I first made this stew I used Rancho Gordo heirloom yellow eye beans, which I had bought back when I was employed.

IMG_2782 IMG_2787

Since then I have also used good old white pea beans (navy beans.) You can read all about how to cook dried beans here. I start by rinsing the beans and then soaking them (or not) for a few hours (if they haven’t soaked, the cooking time will be longer.) You then cover them with water in a big soup pot, adding olive oil and celery/ onions/ carrots, if you like. Cook the beans at a slow simmer until they are done. I adapted this recipe for bean stew from an article I read in The New York Times all about the Greek island of Ikaria, in the Aegean Sea, where people stay up late, take naps after lunch, and drink lots of wine. Sounds good to me.

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Yellow Eye Bean Stew

Adapted slightly from The New York Times

1 pound of yellow eye peas or navy beans
1 medium onion chopped
1 can diced tomatoes
1 bunch of kale, stems removed and finely chopped
A handful of chopped parsley
1 chopped carrot
Chopped dill or fennel
olive oil
salt, season to taste

Cook beans until they are almost done (see directions above.) Add the vegetables and herbs. When the beans are done, add salt to taste. Turn off the heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil.

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Serve the bean stew with crusty bread and lots of red wine and toast to the “blooming and singing of the dark” (this comes from another New York Times article which quotes the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki who said, “Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”) Have a fire in your backyard. Eat halloween candy. And while it’s okay to be sad, you can also try telling yourself happy today, happy today, happy today.

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Tis the season

Happy one-year anniversary to Wisconsin Fun Next Exit.

It was a year ago this weekend that I was seeking spinach and scones and deciding to follow the advice of Orangette’s Molly Wizenberg and create my own little corner of the internet universe. I have been feeling nostalgic for the giddiness that I felt when I sat down with a bottle of wine to write that first post late on a Saturday night one year ago. I have truly enjoyed writing this and I’ve been thinking about how nice it is of you to join me here. So, thank you.

This past year has been a memorable one marked by an uprising,

a (temporary) job teaching third grade, a Packers super bowl victory, the Brewers in the playoffs, a train trip to Seattle,

road trips, old friends, new friends, an honest effort at really loving yoga (although my triangle pose is still a disaster), a new-found love of cats, specifically the two 10-year-olds who became my roomates in June,

moving to the east side, an attempt at growing a vegetable garden and cooking. Lots and lots of cooking.

Oh have I got some recipes for you. There’s an incredibly easy and delicious one for whole wheat pasta with a sauce made of butter, cream and blue cheese (go for a run first!) and tonight (while talking to my dear friend Jenn who lives in D.C. but aspires to move back to Madison) I made a vegetarian version of french onion soup with toasts and melted swiss cheese that tasted rich and hearty on this blustery day in Wisconsin. I plan on telling you all about these and more but for now it’s off to bed. Tomorrow I’ve got a date with Lambeau Field and Tuesday marks the first day of the campaign against Walker. I’ll provide the soup recipes and you provide the signatures. Tis the season for a recall. Let’s do this, Wisconsin.

Sweet dreams.

Love letter to Wisconsin, Part 3

Good morning, Wisconsin.

Without getting too political here, this is a scary time for our state. Our rights are under attack and just sitting down and taking it is not an option. I’m not sure quite yet what my plan is for taking action, but this morning I am thinking about all of the good things about Wisconsin and trying to send all positive vibes our states’ way. Here is the start of a list, in no particular order:

1. The Green Bay Packers

The Packers, owned by thousands of Wisconsinites, just showed THIS MUCH HEART and won a little football match called the Super Bowl.

2. The University of Wisconsin System

The Memorial Union Terrace

From world-class professors, stem cell research, and ‘Varsity’, to ice cream, beer and popcorn at the terrace and the Rathskellar, I love the UW.

3. The Wisconsin Film Festival

After working in the box office for the festival two years ago, this event has become one of my favorite things about Wisconsin. It’s where I first saw ‘Food, Inc.’ (which completely changed my way of thinking about food and the environment) and a charming film called ‘The Beetle,’ a documentary about a man living in Jerusalem who decided to trace the history of his VW Beetle. Seeing an email about this event in my inbox last night made me infinitely happy.

I’m off to go cross-country skiing, so this list is to be continued….

You know it’s the Packers

Somewhere in the middle of all of this I realized that I have fallen in love with you, Green Bay Packers.

I grew up a sports fan, but I was more concerned with baseball and soccer. I distinctly remember listening at a young age to Robin Yount batting while Uecker called the game on the radio on a Easter Sunday as I sat eating pastel-colored candy corn. I remember the Brewers no-hitter in ’87 and my dad taking me for walks in ’84 while the beloved Chicago Cubs tried to make it to the World Series (he believed he was a jinx if he watched the games). But I don’t remember anything about the Packers. Growing up in Madison you can feel isolated from the rest of the state… Needless to say my first vivid memory of the Packers was when I was studying for an Algebra test in high school with my friend Adam, a giant Packer fan. I’m not sure of the circumstances (regular or post-season) but the Packers lost and Adam proceeced to jump up and run outside and moan defeatedly while rolling around in a snowbank. At that point I realized that this team must be worth caring about. Two years later came a Super Bowl victory and more rolling around in the snow by boys- but this time it was the thrill of victory that led them to the drifts. I watched the next year as the Packers lost the Super Bowl, and I’m pretty sure I was bummed. The next few years are hazy… Fast forward to 2003. The Packers were making a run for the playoffs but it was a longshot and depended on a number or factors. In the last game of the season the Packers had to win and the Vikings had to lose. It wasn’t looking good. I remember sitting on the couch unable to breath. The Packers won their game, but the Vikings were rolling against the Cardinals. My dad was on the computer with a slow internet connection trying to get the latest on the Vikings game- suddenly the t.v. came back from commercials and in some miraculous turn of events, the Cardinals had come back to win. The Packers were going to the playoffs. The phone rang. I knew it was going to be Dan (we were still just friends at the time) and all I could do was scream into the phone. No hello. No hi. No doubt. Just screaming. I knew it was over- there was no turning back- I had become as crazy as the rest of them. I was also moving to Wyoming in a few days.

The next few years I celebrated the victories and felt sorrow at the losses. I bragged about the loyalty of Packer fans to all of my new Patriot fans that I met while living in Wyoming. I sat in my loft on New Year’s Eve 2006 crying when Favre cried at the end of what I thought would be his last game. Back living in Wisconsin I cried my eyes out again when Favre retired the first time. You know what happened next. And now here we are. The Packers are in the Super Bowl in less than two hours. Rational or not, I will sit captivated on my couch watching the game. I will scream. I will pull my shirt over eyes, unable to watch. I will trip myself running around the house like a maniac. I might cry. My neighbor might think again that Dan and I are domestically abusing each other until he realizes that we are actually yelling about a Tramon Williams interception. It’s all fair game. And no matter what happens, you know it’s the Packers. And Packer fans, you know it’s us.

Danger in his favorite Packer outfit
Laramie Peak, Wyoming- where Meagan, Dan and I screamed 'Go Pack Go' at the top of our lungs and wondered if Bengal fans would ever climb a mountain and yell 'Go Bengals'
Meagan and Derek's dogs with their Packer-colored casts
A magical evening at Lambeau Field when the Packers beat the Seahawks in the playoffs in a snowstorm
Dan and Clay Packer-Owl doing the Packer March, invented by Derek, a Packer owner, after a Packer victory at Bronco Stadium
Go Pack Go

You light up my life, B.J. Raji

Yesterday this happened… and the heaviest man in the history of the NFL to score a touchdown in the playoffs was described as “prancing” around in the endzone. B.J. Raji, watching you run the football for a touchdown like a giant baby keeping candy away from a pesty kid on your block was one of the best moments of the season. And then you put your hands on your hips and shook your behind. And now the Packers are going to the Super Bowl. B.J. Raji, you light up my life.

In addition to lighting up my life, you and your ball club have been dominating my weekends lately, not that I’m complaining. But who’s got time to worry about a week’s worth of lunches when the Packers are playing in the NFC Championship? Not this fan. And so this is how I found myself in the predicament that I did today- no lunch for school and famished by the time I got home at 5:30. A stroke of desperation/ genius led me to a jar of peanut butter, a banana and a honey bear. I love this sandwich so much, but I often forget to make it for myself. In case you have forgotten how delicious it is, I wanted to remind you, too.

I bet B.J. Raji likes this sandwich

Take a couple of pieces of whole wheat bread, spread on some all-natural peanut butter, slice up half a banana and pour on the honey. Mmmmmm.

Luckily I had some leftover lentil soup in the fridge that Dan and I heated up for dinner that was made all the better by grating (Wisconsin) parmesan cheese on top. I served it with steamed kale that I doused in lemon juice and sriracha- this was a revelation. And a delicious loaf of country bread from the Madison Sourdough Company. Basking in the afterglow of the Packers’ victory, it was a fine winter dinner.

Go Pack Go.

Love is close dancing, Part 2 or I am allowed to drink booze

We had breakfast (homeade blueberry pancakes, Wisconsin maple syrup, fake sausage patties and lots of coffee) with our good friends Derek and Lanore this morning before they hit the road for Virginia (I was supremely jealous as I watched them drive away). Derek, a fantastic singer/ songwriter who has collaborated with Dan (including on this song– one of my favorites), was in town to play a show at The Frequency last night. In addition to “Old Fashioned,” Derek wrote an anthemic song about the Pine Cone truckstop off of I-94 between Madison and Milwaukee and can do a soul-bearing cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”

Derek and Dan at Isenroo 2010

Unfortunately Dan and I missed Derek’s set last night because we had an important task to do, which I will share in a future post…. We did however catch a set by The Snowbirds, a band out of Green Bay and Milwaukee. They were a little bit country (the good kind of country- like Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard) and even covered a song by one of my new favorite old bands, The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was a really good show- I enjoyed watching Gary doing a lot of foot stomps and rocking out on acoustic guitar and Dan was enamored with the pedal steel guitar. But one of my favorite parts of the whole evening was when I got home from the show and realized that the wrist band I had received at the door declared, “I am allowed to drink booze.” Well I suppose I am.

This morning Derek requested that I post that recipe for whole wheat pasta that I mentioned in my previous post. So I will start with that for my continued list of holiday highlights.

Highlight #4: Pasta dinner with my parents and Dan…

Whole wheat pasta with zucchini and goat cheese

The night after my parents arrived from Oklahoma my mom and I made this recipe from The New York Times. We served it with a loaf of good bread and roasted cauliflower and laughed hard about the time that my dad and his friend were watching Dairyland Jubilee and drove to the local tv station in an attempt to polka dance with Miss Whithee Bell. The story gets better from there but I think I might get in trouble if I say anymore. Here’s the recipe for the pasta (we doubled it for four people). It was delicious- I can’t wait to make it in the summer when the zucchini and basil are in season (and possibly grown in my garden).

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This is a recipe from the Dining section of The New York Times, October 12, 2010.

Creamy Pasta With Roasted Zucchini, Almonds and Basil

2 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 3 cups)

1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons slivered almonds

1/3 cup heavy cream

1 sprig basil, with leaves and stem

3 tablespoons goat cheese

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

6 ounces whole-wheat spaghetti or linguine.

 1. Heat oven to 500 degrees. Toss the zucchini and oil with 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Arrange zucchini on a baking sheet in a single layer. Roast, tossing occasionally, until golden and tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, toast the almonds in a skillet over medium heat until golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.

3. Simmer the cream and basil sprig in a small saucepan over medium heat until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 7 minutes. Whisk in the goat cheese until the sauce is smooth. Remove from heat; stir in lemon zest and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cover and keep warm.

4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain well. Toss the pasta with the cream sauce. Serve topped with the zucchini and almonds.

Yield: 2 servings.

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#5: Our trip to Evanston, Illinois a couple of days after Christmas to visit friends.

In an extremely cozy house built a very long time ago we drank champagne and ate roasted brussel sprouts and cauliflower. Despite being told that they were vegan, I abstained from eating the ribs, but I heard they were delicious.

Brussel sprouts ready to go into the oven

We finally made our way to bed after a sing-along with Dan and Pat. A good time was had by all.

#6: Our Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve Scrabble games.  

Christmas Eve Scrabble game

We started playing Scrabble again a couple of years ago. We usually abide by the rules but we have had some ridiculous games (usually to accommodate my sister who used to become frustrated easily while playing, but has recently greatly  increased her gameplay) where we allowed words like “jaxed” (as in, “Oh man, you just got ‘jaxed’), “manrib” (?) and “epain” (pain received via the internet).

Dan is generally in charge of naming the competitors and this particular game was a grueling battle between Groggy, Cold and Clean! For once I, Cold, was victorious!

Cold is the winner!

We also honor a tradition established with my cousins at a family reunion in Montana: After the game everyone holds up the number of fingers of their finishing ranking and must have a look on their face that reflects their position. And then we take a photo which is usually pretty entertaining.

#7: Making owl-shaped Christmas cookies in the likeness of Green Bay Packers players.

Clay and Aaron

It was our friend Maggie’s idea and I think she is full of good ideas. Do you think “fans” of other teams do this? I don’t. Go Pack Go!!!!!!!!

Gilbert
Driver, Raji and Gilbert

#8: Last but not least, Christmas Day.

Christmas Day officially started at my sister’s friend’s parents’ house where we sat around the fireplace and sipped on rum and cokes. My sister and I walked home at about 3 a.m. through the perfectly quiet and snowy streets of our neighborhood. It was one of those nights where you just want to walk through those streets forever. Sneaking in the house around 3:30 we were greeted by our father who has had to deal with our late nights for a very long time. The next morning we opened stockings and a few presents at home and then we were off to our aunt and uncle’s house where we enjoyed mimosas, coffee, egg frittata and fruit salad. In the afternoon we took our traditional trip to the street where my dad grew up to visit his friend’s mom who is 102-years-old this year and an incredible woman.

After that was Christmas dinner at our friends’ house.

Sitting around a familiar wooden table in a candlelit dining room with Japanese rice paper windows we popped open Christmas crackers, laughed at our fortunes and wore colored paper crowns. We ate spinach, citrus salad with pomagranate seeds, potatoes and peppermint stick ice cream pie. We drank wine and cheersed to being together. And at one point our host put on his golden lame suit bequeathed to him by his dear friend and put on a song and dance routine. It was a magical evening.

After dinner we went across the street to the neighbor’s house where people from the neighborhood have started to gather on Christmas night for an outdoor fire. We sipped a  little whiskey, listened to a little banjo, and had a grand ol’ time. After we left the fire Dan, my sister and I were off to the Laurel Tavern to see who would show up and to catch up with some old friends. I knew it at the time, but in retrospect, it really was quite the day.

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Happy 2011. Here’s to a healthy, peaceful and happy year with lots of highlights.

Love is close dancing

Happy New Year, everyone. I spent my first night of 2011 sleeping in Dan’s new van which I am hoping is a good omen that I will be spending lots of time on the road this year. I definitely can be a homebody, but I was bitten by wanderlust the first time my parents strapped me into the ’77 pinto. And my mind keeps wandering to places like Montana, Wyoming, Washington, the redwoods of California, Maine…

Probably listening to Bob Seger right now...

The last two and a half weeks have been filled with many high and some low points. I have decided to focus on the highlights… My January page of my new Snoopy calendar declares that “Love is close dancing,” so I’ll start there-

Highlight #1: Dancing with Dan to Steve Winwood’s “The Finer Things” in his parked van shorty after midnight after his New Year’s Eve show. I had almost forgotten how much I love that song until Dan found the cassette tape when cleaning out his beloved old Chevy Astro.

#2: Dan’s New Year’s Eve show off the interstate in Oconomowoc. Due to the fifty-degree weather and rain, the ski hill was abandoned but the music was rocking!

#3: Two trips to Lambeau Field (both ending in victories for the Packers)…

Headed to the playoffs

The New York Giants game was crazy fun (including befriending a man from Wales who was seated in front of us and had no idea about how the game of football worked but was pumping his fist and high-fiving us by the end of the game) and the Bears game was really, really tense (at one point I had to lecture a Packer fan- who was from Illinois- about how we do not ever boo the Packers at half-time) but I always love going to Lambeau.

More highlights, including high-stakes Scrabble games and a recipe for whole wheat pasta with zucchini and goat cheese, to come….